If you had been offered a trip to Bilbao in the early 1990s, you probably would have asked, "Where is it?" and "What's there?" It's in northern Spain and, until 1997, with the launch of the legendary $228 million Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, the best answer to that second question might've been "Good food."
With Gehry's building acting as a magnetic branding device, the city attracted almost 800,000 new overnight stays annually in the 10 years since its opening, and the trend has continued through the gloomy global economy. More than just a visitor attraction, the museum was part of a bigger plan to regenerate a fading industrial port city. It worked. It's a case study that has prompted governments and investors around the world to hope there's a magic formula for putting their place on the map -- a variation on the line in Field of Dreams: If you build a great new building, they will come.
Now, architects are global superstars tasked to work magic with dazzling creations. Every time a city commissions the likes of Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Sir Norman Foster, Daniel Liebeskind, Zaha Hadid or Santiago Calatrava, it's longing for the next Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House. Dubai, for one, has invested heavily in architecture to become a desirable destination; its Burj Al Arab hotel is one of the most distinctive new buildings in the world. For a study in contrasts, check out the Eden Project. Located in an abandoned clay pit in the sparsely populated English county of Cornwall, it's a complex of geodesic domes that serves as tourist attraction/charity and social enterprise; the venture has attracted almost 13 million visitors since its 2001 opening and added more than $1 billion to the local economy.
It doesn't always take a new signature building to put a place on the map. The three-part epic movie Lord of the Rings did more to make faraway New Zealand a tourist destination than the most creative new building ever could have. Cult-hit TV crime drama The Killing has boosted international interest in Copenhagen, which is much appreciated by the Danish tourist board.
There's nothing new in the need for places to grow their appeal and maintain it. Throughout history, attractive locations have acted as a magnet for people, economic activity and cultural life, which all boosted their power and attractiveness. What has changed is that globalization has increased the speed, geographical range and intensity of competition among locations. Cheap flights have made it easy for footloose tourists to go anywhere that takes their fancy, so growing numbers of places are trying to create and communicate (more) reasons for visitors to choose them. Powerful global communications links make it possible for businesses and employees to move wherever they find conditions most favorable.
Anywhere, Nowhere or Somewhere
The name of the game is placemaking -- building the unique identity and appeal of a location. It's about the transformation of a nowhere place that's off the beaten track, or an anywhere place that's superficially like thousands of others, into a somewhere -- a distinctive place with its own attractive personality. The stakes can be high, but the payoff can make it well worth the price; the cost of not playing can be a city or even a whole country that languishes.
Austin could have been just another nice little town in Texas. But a dedicated local music joint sowed seeds that sprouted into more venues, attracted more musicians and turned Austin into the Live Music Capital of the World. A local festival organized in 1987 morphed into SXSW, one of the world's premier annual events encompassing film, interactive and music festivals and conferences. Now for millions of people, Austin is the biggest star in the Lone Star State.
Savannah was on its way to becoming just another steamy Southern town whose genteel decline was being hastened by careless development. Then, in 1994, a nonfiction novel about the city, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, became a best-seller and a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Savannah spotted its chance, visitors discovered its attractive architecture and climate, and the city has become home to young artists and young-at-heart retirees.
Pittsburgh has transformed steep industrial decline into a post-industrial renaissance. Once simultaneously lit up and darkened by steel mills, the city became a rusting hulk of unemployment after the industry departed and left more than 1,000 acres of abandoned, blighted industrial land. Then a commitment to redevelopment and renewal gave it new open-air amenities; new jobs in healthcare, technology, finance, research, hospitality and tourism; and a thriving cultural scene. A famous place has been remade: The Steel City ranked as the most livable in the United States for 2011.
Even before the economic crisis, plenty of places were keen to turn their fortunes around and were taking steps to make it happen, from Detroit and Omaha, Neb., to Richmond, Va., and Charleston, S.C. The past five years have given the process added urgency.
It's not just under-the-radar cities driving the placemaking trend; previously déclassé areas of big cities are creating their own identities. Brooklyn, for one, is stepping out of the shadow of Manhattan to take its place in the sun as an area for hip young professionals, and the 2012 Olympics gave new impetus to the rise of happening East London.
The last few years have shown that we are in the era of placemaking, where any city can be turned into a destination for business and tourism alike.
This is the ninth in a series of 14 posts expanding on Salzman's forecasts for 2013 in her annual trends report, a program of global communications group Havas Worldwide. This year's book, What's Next? What to Expect in 2013, was published on 12/12/12 and is available at 120MBooks.com. Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and an internationally respected trendspotter.